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No Communication Breakdown

by Jo Page on January 14, 2010

Though I worry about every conceivable thing you can imagine and then some, I don’t spend much time worrying that, as a culture, we are growing distant from one another because people use e-mail, texting and social networking to stay in touch.

I don’t even worry so much that books will become obsolete and therefore people will become dumb because they are used to reading snippets of this and snippets of that on their smart phones (one of which I have and I hate) and laptops. Sure, you can put your flash fiction up on Twitter, and maybe this means there will be more and more bad flash fiction available to more and more readers.

But people are still selling and reading books. Long books. Short books. Books of short stories. Serial books—some worthwhile (think Harry Potter), some stupid (think Twilight).

And even though over 400 print magazines shut down in 2009, online journals and blogs are on the ascendancy.

People are connecting with one another. People are reading. Just in different ways.

But the prognosticators of doom have plenty to speculate about because technologies change and morph at breakneck pace.

In a piece for The New York Times, Brad Stone writes that his 2-year-old daughter “will know nothing other than a world with digital books, Skype video chats with faraway relatives, and toddler-friendly video games on the iPhone. She’ll see the world a lot differently from her parents.”

Well, sure. We all see the world differently from our parents.

But researchers are troubled by the possible reality that younger siblings will see the world differently from their older brothers and sisters.

“People two, three or four years apart are having completely different experiences with technology,” said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project. “College students scratch their heads at what their high school siblings are doing, and they scratch their heads at their younger siblings. It has sped up generational differences.”

Lee Rosen, author of Rewired: Understanding the iGeneration and the Way They Learn, sees a distinction between those born in the 1980s and those born in the ’90s. He calls them the iGeneration and posits that they will want and expect an instant response from those with whom they make contact, via text or IM. They will be less inclined to wait for the regularly scheduled program and more inclined to go to Hulu.

Another researcher, Mizuko Ito, a cultural anthropologist at the University of California Humanities Research Institute, sees the barriers between real time and cyber-social interactions crumbling and along with that, a decrease in the sense of a need for privacy. And it’s true, you can find out a lot about a person just by visiting their Facebook page.

All these researchers, including the Kaiser Family Foundation, which will soon release a sweeping survey on the technology and media habits of children and teenagers, seem to be taking a watching-and-waiting-while wringing-their-hands view of things.

“I worry that young people won’t be able to summon the capacity to focus and concentrate when they need to,” said Vicky Rideout, a vice president at Kaiser.

In view of that, I don’t know why I should feel so optimistically inclined to believe that much of this burgeoning technology is basically reinventing the way we have always been.

We’ve always wanted and expected an immediate response: Before there were phones, there was the twice-daily post. Before there was e-mail there was the Telex machine and before that, the telegram.

As for the crumbling barrier between real and virtual life, the phrase “lose yourself in a good book” suggests that we’ve been blurring the boundaries between fictional characters and our own attachments to them for a long time. And though I’m sure cyber-social interactions can have deleterious effects on real-life friendships, nobody seemed to worry about that when it came to having pen pals.

The question of privacy is a trickier one, I’ll admit. Reading personal blogs and visiting social networking sites is something like driving around suburban streets at night peering from your car through undrawn drapes and unshuttered windows. You glimpse a slice of a stranger’s life.

Only it’s more than just that—and this part can be bittersweet: you glimpse a slice of life from a friend with whom you’d reconnected over Facebook. But then one way leads on to another and when you visit their page you realize how far your lives really have drifted apart.

Or you glimpse a slice of your child’s life—a quote from a song or pictures from a party and you find them perplexing or even frightening.

You offer up a slice of your own life, not knowing who will see it, not knowing what tone to strike, since what’s personal and what’s public are in some kind of flux.

Yeah, that can be troubling. On the other hand, people have been writing and reading each others’ memoirs for years. We’re nosy people. We’re curious people.

And I guess that’s why I don’t share the worry of the researchers who see new technologies as devices that further subdivide us from one another. It may be the undiluted Pollyanna in me, but sometimes I think these ever-morphing ways of keeping in contact have the potential to teach us new ways of learning how to care—for each other and for our world.